The Onslaught

Recombinant Rock in the Valley of Dub

Within music are two contrary impulses, both worth nurturing: the impulse to focus on a main story, such as a lead melody or lead singer or soloist, maybe with a charismatic show-off taking center stage and acting as if all the music were his doing; and the opposing impulse to throw the various musical elements into conversation and competition with each other, to play around with both harmonies and disharmonies, attraction and distraction. Of course you can mix it up too, have melodies and show-offs and background riffs in competition with one another.

This tension exists in all genres. Different times have different inclinations. The 1940s had swing bands with singers in them, but as the decade went on these bands tended to be displaced by star singers with swing musicians backing them up. Jazz of the '20s wavered between group improvisation and soloists with accompaniment. There's always a push and pull between foreground and background, tightness and looseness.

At the moment, there are all these rock—especially metal—bands who are pulling their music together from various sources (blues-rock rhythms and licks, northern Euroclassical romantic darkness, Eastern mystery, hardcore thrash noise, new agey nice sounds, trance effects) but who integrate their material into a unified-seeming sound. And on the other hand there's Recombinant Dub-Disco-Hip-Hop-Techno-House-Etc. (which I'll call Recombinant Dub for short because I want to give Jamaica pride of place), which encompasses a whole lot of what's been happening in the last 35 years—in disco, dancehall, hip-hop, r&b, house, techno, trance, Latin club, jungle. In Recombinant Dub, you take out the "lead" instrument—the singer, the melody, the lead guitar. So your center is no longer necessarily occupied by sound. Or if a sound does take center stage, it may not be what you expect from a frontman or soloist. The background may come to the fore, so that the effect of a simple change in rhythm, or the presence or absence of a cymbal, can be enormous. Or with the center now officially cleared away, anything from anywhere can be put into that front space (including soloists and singers and melodies), though no longer with the assurance that it can't be displaced. And what's been put back into the music can be twisted and treated and manipulated, and the new track can be a source for yet other recordings. From all this we get the mix-and-match that constitutes a lot of contemporary music.

One-step Brooklyn boulder-holders Oneida
photo: Courtesy Jagjaguwar Records
One-step Brooklyn boulder-holders Oneida

But it's not as if dub and rock have nothing to do with each other, given that a lot of the people at the headwaters of Recombinant Dub—including Lee Perry and Augustus Pablo and George Clinton and Norman Whitfield and Isaac Hayes and Kraftwerk—derived some of their spaciness from the psychedelic '60s. And hip-hop pulls rock into its mix-and-match whenever it wants to. Jay-Z's "Takeover" is built around a loop from the Doors' "Five to One," and M.O.P.'s "Ante Up" raps to the chord pattern from "House of the Rising Sun." And some rock bands integrate techno devices into their songs. The self-titled CD by Rancid spin-off Transplants is full of tape loops and electrobeats while nonetheless being a tight, straightforward tuneful Clash-based punk record.

But I'm also noticing space and mix-and-match in current metal and rock bands, and not only those rock bands who do hip-hop or dub tracks (the Transplants have a couple dubby reggae numbers), but also bands who find rock or pop ways to create recombinant space. As I said, there's ancestry for this: Led Zeppelin would punch strange holes in their sound; for instance, they'd bring it down to Robert Plant singing against nothing but his own echo. And even the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction"—the tightest song ever by the tightest group ever—has a crucial break where they clear out all the other instruments, while the drum goes on with its relentlessly simple part. Extraordinarily dramatic.

Nowadays, dark-metal bands such as Opeth create "songs" (average track-length on Deliverance is 10 minutes, 30 seconds) that wander from style to style and, amidst the pummeling drums and bellowing werewolves, achieve a new age moodiness by emphasizing the darkly lush instrumental background (the new age will be full of shadows). And there's a segment of "industrial" music that is probably the closest you'll get to an official disco-metal genre. Wumpscut's Wreath of Barbs has as many synthesized beats and vocoder vocals as an electro album, albeit with clanks and crashes in the rhythm and the eerie, doomy (and pretty) melodies beloved by Goths, Visigoths, Huns, and all those other marauding tribes from the north. And if you eliminate the death-metal growling from Decoded Feedback's EVOlution LP (1999) you're left with the sort of pretty Eurodisco tracks that you'd find on Donna Summer or Pet Shop Boys records, and if you eliminate the death growl from their Mechanical Feedback LP (2000) you're close to trance. Their record company describes their forthcoming LP Shockwave as "pure aggro industrial"—perhaps "aggro" will turn out to be a euphemism for "ambient dub."

"Discover the miracle of your third eye with the first truly heavy psychedelic rock record of the new millennium," proclaims the cover sticker to Oneida's Each One Teach One, though Oneida seem "psychedelic" more in the merry-prankster sense than the Pink Floyd ("we're trying to create a new genre called 'one-step'—we expect it to blow up big time, and get us on the cover of The Wire"); on the first track they don't go for dub space, but they achieve its effect in the exact opposite way: by throwing into the foreground a near monolithic, nonstop repeating sound, the vocalists chanting "light light light light," with the instruments seemingly all playing along in unison, whomp whomp whomp whomp. So it's as if the center of the music were occupied by a giant boulder, this mass of repeating sound, wham wham wham wham. And as you listen harder, you discover all sorts of little variations underneath the gigantic sound: a drum shift, vocals going slightly out of phase, globs of organ that mutate into organ rolls. And the little variations become gigantic themselves, since they're what vary the piece and give it shape. So you've got a giant boulder of sound, but beneath it is a teeming mess of motion and life.

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